I love and hate September.
It’s the same every year. I look forward to the excitement of school starting, the promise of leaves changing to bright oranges and reds, and the feeling of hope in the air. But September also means the end of summer, the end of lazy mornings, and the end of popsicles and watermelon at the pool. For me, September also brings late night lesson planning and early morning lunch packing and – this year – a wedding.
It’s a lot of change.
A few weeks ago, as September began, Chris and I decided that we needed a night away from home, just the two of us. We found some outdoor dining and the night was beautiful so we decided to ride our bikes. It’s something I never did before – the restaurant was four miles away! – but I’ve grown to like it. It’s a kind of adventuring I didn’t really do until I met Chris, and now that we go out on our bikes all the time, I sometimes think, Why didn’t I always do it this way?
We talked about our lives as we sipped on cocktails and ate mussels. We’d both lived downtown in the mid-aughts, right around the corner from where we sat. Remember that dive bar a few blocks away? And that great little coffee shop – was it still around? We laughed a lot recounting the parties we’d been to back when we had few possessions or responsibilities.
After we ate, we rode our bikes around the streets downtown. I showed him my first apartment in DC, the one near Dupont Circle that I shared with Shawn just after we were married. He showed me his first apartment in DC, the one where he used to play dominoes on the roof deck with his grad school friends. Our apartments were just a few blocks away from each other.
It was funny that we hadn’t known each other then. Of course, we were both living very different lives – Chris was in DC then but would soon spend years in Latin America, and I was married to Shawn and thinking about having kids. But how was it that we’d never met, never passed each other in the grocery store, never crowded onto a metro together?
If I had known where I’d be almost twenty years later, what would I have done? I know it would have wrecked me back then to know that Shawn was going to die, even if I could also know that I’d find love once again.
It’s strange to think about the past, about all that I didn’t know and all the things that I couldn’t know, even if I had wanted to know them then. Riding my bike on those streets, I could feel myself walking them almost two decades prior. Thinking about that woman – the woman I was – made me wish I could go to her and say something, a kind of signal maybe. There is heartbreak ahead, Marjorie, but it will be okay. You will be happy, too.
We rode further, near Rock Creek Park and right by a university. In the distance, we could hear music, and as we approached a grassy area, we saw that there was a band performing. We stopped, and listened to the rock music the band was playing, swaying along with about 50 other people. At the end of the song, the lead singer of the band said that the guitarist would be singing the next song by himself. The rest of the band left, and the guitarist stood alone on the stage.
He fumbled with his guitar and seemed nervous, admitting that he didn’t usually sing and play the guitar at the same time. It was taking him a while to get everything set up, and the crowd began to stir. “Should we keep riding?” Chris asked me, when I looked over at him.
I didn’t want to, though I wasn’t quite sure why. It seemed like a normal time to continue on, as clearly the band was winding down. And yet, I paused. There was something in the air that made me say, wait, just a minute.
“I want to stay for this song,” I said to Chris. “I feel like we just stumbled upon something special.”
Finally, after much adjusting, the guitarist began to speak. He told us that he was playing the song in honor of his brother, and his voice caught a little bit. “He died by suicide last March,” he said, and then paused. He missed his brother dearly, and he was still grieving, that much was obvious. “Sometimes the happiest faces aren’t actually happy,” he said, and then he started to play.
It was beautiful – soulful and sad, but sweet and hopeful too. As he sang, tears ran down my face, and Chris put his hand on mine. It was so raw, so real, so terrible and so beautiful.
I wanted to be nowhere but there, in that moment. Briefly, I thought about that girl, the one I’d once been, the one who’d listened to live music in the park in the mid-aughts and laughed with her friends and had known nothing about the future that lay ahead.
When the guitarist finished, Chris looked at me with raised eyebrows, as if to say, What’s next?
“Let’s keep going,” I said, and he smiled. And then we pedaled into the night, the sound of the guitar growing fainter, but still there, somehow, even when we were out of earshot.